SARASOTA, FLA. — The sting of being sent down to the minor leagues last season still fuels Orioles catcher Steve Clevenger. And he's not shy talking about the emotional and frustrating year that was 2014.
Last year, Clevenger easily won the Orioles' backup catching job in spring training, beating Johnny Monell. A year later, he again is in a tight competition to back up starter Matt Wieters.
Despite making the Orioles' Opening Day roster last season, Clevenger played just 35 games in the major leagues.
An opportunity for more playing time came in May once Wieters went down with an elbow injury that eventually led to season-ending Tommy John surgery. But Clevenger was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk three days after the Orioles traded for veteran catcher Nick Hundley on May 24.
Clevenger, who will turn 29 in April, briefly rejoined the team twice — once in July and then again in late August — before joining the team for good when rosters expanded in September. He saw action in nine games down the stretch in the regular season's final month, but the end of his season was a far cry from where it began.
This spring, the Pigtown native is trying to impress the Orioles brass again.
"I was thinking today how good he looked today," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Clevenger after Sunday's intrasquad game in which the Mount Saint Joseph graduate caught two innings. "It's going to be a tough call. Stevie's doing well. He's come in in good shape and nobody questions his ability to hit. Athletically, he's gifted as a catcher if he can just get it all together."
When the Orioles chose to keep rookie Caleb Joseph over Clevenger last year, Showalter said the decision was difficult — he even said it was a "51 to 49 percent" margin. Clevenger was hitting .243 through 24 games at the time, but he had thrown out just three of 20 base runners and the Orioles were 8-10 in games that he had started.
"Just don't get too comfortable in the big leagues, that's what I took from last year," Clevenger said. "I wasn't surprised. I kind of had a feeling about a week before I got sent down that it was going to be me. The team wasn't winning when I was catching. And honestly, you just can't go 3-for-20.
"We just weren't playing good baseball. You've got to take care of your business on the field and try to do the best you can do, and that's what I thought I did in the certain circumstances. I played the game hard and I played the game the way I know how, and it just didn't work out."
So when Clevenger was sent to Norfolk, he went there with something to prove. And he hit .323/.378/.458 in his first 36 games with the Tides, earning a brief call-up before the All-Star break.
"There was a chip on my shoulder," Clevenger said. "I wasn't very happy about being sent down. I thought I deserved to stay in the big leagues for what I did in spring training. I thought I deserved a better shot at staying with the team. I did go down with a chip on my shoulder, and I did tell myself I was going to prove these guys wrong. … That's how I took it all going down to Norfolk. I was really frustrated down there.
"I played well when I went down to Triple-A, so it could have been a lot worse. I could have went down there and played back and I wouldn't have had the opportunity to come down here to make the team."
Clevenger hit .305/.366/.389 in 64 games at Norfolk on the season. But his bat has never been a concern.
The Orioles know he can hit, and the fact that he does it from the left side is even more attractive. Now, it's about showing the Orioles that he has all the tools to be a major league catcher, especially with calling a game.
"I think it's the next step for a lot of young catchers and a lot of catchers," Wieters said. "It's just being able to get that feel, and it's tough to do when you don't get a lot of games back there behind the plate. It's really something that comes with experience and it's tough to get that experience. Just watching his skill set, he's got everything you need to be a big league catcher. It's just a matter of kind of finding a way to find that experience and knowledge.
"It's always interesting to see what their thought process of getting there is, and that's the thing about catching. Clev has all the tools. He knows how to hit. He can catch and throw. It's just a matter of being there to see what his thought processes are in the pitch-calling aspect. The big thing is you can't say whether it's the right pitch or the wrong pitch until you actually hear the reasoning behind."
Hundley signed with the Colorado Rockies in free agency. Joseph now has a year under his belt after coming off a season in which he threw out a major-league-leading 40 percent of base runners (23-for-47), well over the 27 percent league average.
Unlike past years — when other catchers might have been brought into major league camp just to catch bullpen sessions — each of the six catchers here has legitimate promise.
The Orioles also signed veteran J.P. Arencibia, a 2007 first-round pick who was a starter with the Toronto Blue Jays for three seasons. They claimed Ryan Lavarnway, who was a top prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization, off waivers. And minor leaguer Brian Ward quietly has earned the reputation of a being a great defender and one of the best catch-and-throw guys in the organization.
Wieters is expected to be recovered from last year's surgery by Opening Day. If he's not ready to catch by then, he likely would remain in Florida until he is. But the Orioles have many quality options.
"On our part, it's great, because we have quality things to pick from, but it probably doesn't make it any better for them," Showalter said. "Our depth at the catching position is a lot better than it was two years ago. I feel good, we're going to come out of here with a good catching situation, which means here and Norfolk. We're a long way away from making that decision, but I like our choices, and Steve's a good one."
Clevenger realizes this spring will be a battle.
"I approach spring training the same way every year," Clevenger said. "I've always been a guy who comes in not being guaranteed a spot and always fighting for a spot. Any time you're in a camp and you're not a big money guy, you're always going to be competing for a job.
"Last year might have helped me a little bit, but at the same time, it was pretty frustrating at the time. You go year to year and you can only control what you can control."